Posted tagged ‘stylebook’

The Washington Post changes “mike,” “e-mail” to “mic,” “email”

December 8, 2015

1-12433511551KPgDays ago in an op-edWashington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh announced some changes in the paper’s stylebook. Long after the Associated Press and even the New York Times, the Post has changed the following:
—“e-mail” to “email”
—“Web site” to “website”
—“Wal-Mart” to “Walmart”
—the short form of “microphone” from “mike” to “mic”

“Why did we wait so long to make the changes?” he wrote. “As the keeper, more or less, of The Post’s style manual, I’ll tell you why: because the new spellings were wrong.”

If all copyeditors were laid end to end, would they ever reach the same conclusion? At the same time? (Oh, wait, that’s economists.) Walmart changed the way it referred to its stores—if not its official corporate name—in 2008. AP changed “Web site” and “e-mail” in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The Times did so in 2013. Walsh decided to propose his changes only once the Post was about to move to a new building. Better late than never, I guess.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Email. We don’t say “tshirt” or “xray,” Walsh says, so why “email”? But he caved to pressure both internal and external because “yesterday’s vigorously defended norm can be today’s laughingstock.” Wrote Grammar Girl in 2011, “I asked the AP Stylebook editors why they made the change, and they said most of their writers already turn in articles with the ‘email’ spelling, and copy editors found ‘e-mail’ increasingly difficult to police. They emphasized that they don’t consider themselves to be on the leading edge of language change; that instead, they ‘bow to common usage.’ ”

My take: Don’t be fooled by the fact that tech users are early adopters; the world is not aligned on this sort of thing. AP also uses “e-book,” “e-commerce,” and “e-business”; a well-funded, global legal association uses “e-commerce” and “e-discovery.” To me, it’s about readability; do readers trip over the word? Digital readers were much quicker to give up (on) the hyphen.

Website. “I don’t know why I made such a big deal about it all these years,” said Walsh.

My take: AP still caps “Web” as a proper noun while lowercasing “website,” “webcam,” “webmaster,” etc. (We’ll see how long that lasts.) I’m fine with making it one word but appreciate the cap for clarity.

Walmart. The company is Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; it changed its logo in 2008. A logo is not a word, but readers complained. Walsh found a loophole that he said let him make the change: “The Post no longer routinely uses Inc., Corp., Co. and the like in company names. So we could keep Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on the rare occasion when we’d spell out the name, while otherwise referring to the company and its stores by the name everyone knows.” (Huh? What does that have to do with Walmart vs. Wal-Mart?)

My take: Just pay your workers decently, whatever you call yourself.

Mic. Walsh spent six paragraphs trying to justify his decision here. No wonder. “As a purist, I’m still not happy about mic. As a pragmatist, I feel I have to accept it,” he said.

Pro “mike”: “A bicycle is a bike, not a bic. Bic, as in the pens, rhymes with Mick.” Plus, “mic” began as an abbreviation on recording devices; it was never meant to be pronounced or used as a word. Pro “mic”: “Enough people made the error that mic gradually crept into the language.”

My take: I completely agree with everything Walsh says above, though I hate that the Post and other guides are giving in on this. As he explained well, “mic is an aberration.” And call me Irish(-American), but I’m not getting over the bad historical connections here. He’s also correct, though, that “some now-common phrases—mic drop, hot mic—would look downright anachronistic with the old spelling.” Which … is how language changes.

As an afterthought(!), Walsh stopped short of changing the rule that a person must be called “he” or “she”—but the Post now also allows the use of “they” “as a last resort.” Say what?! This one Walsh actually advocated as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” “He” is sexist, “she” is patronizing, “he or she” is awkward, and alternating and “s/he” are silly. “What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns,” he wrote, “was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people.” Plus, he noted, sometimes you just don’t know the right gender to use.

Walsh claims to be surprised that people have protested this change more than the others. Seriously? “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle,” he wrote. “We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

My ultimate take: Of all the changes mentioned here, the fact that no one has brought a complaint about a newspaper of record breaking a basic rule of grammar is the saddest one of all.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

The Post shakes up its stylebook (somewhat)

July 19, 2014

Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copyeditor, has been chatting online again. As copyeditors are wont to do (an old English saying whose origin I don’t know), he’s been tinkering with the paper’s stylebook. “Some of that work is a game of old-fogy Whac-a-Mole,” he says, “in which I shake my head at Kids Today and break up brandnewterms with the space bar or the hyphen key.” Heh.

“These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ, but mass-market print journalism is inherently conservative with language. On the one hand, I can’t deny that there is a growing synergy between technological change and language change. On the other hand, there’s something absurd about onewording a five-minute-old invention when a paper clip still isn’t a paperclip after 115 years. So, for example, we cling to ‘voice mail’ (somewhat older than five minutes, but well short of 115 years) and ‘e-mail’ and ‘Web site.’ And ‘user name’ and ‘ear buds.’ ”

Come on, Bill. Even the Associated Press switched to “email” and “website” years ago. The Post is starting to look silly by holding out. But then, this is the news organization that hung on to “employe” for decades.

Also regarding the stylebook changes, he says, “More timelessly, I warn against saying someone ‘declined to be identified,’ which is sort of like declining to be punched in the nose—it’s not in your control.” Oh dear; I’m disagreeing with my colleague again. If it is not in the person’s control, he or she is identified: “ … said Jane Jones of Rockville” or “said John Jones, undersecretary of the Interior.” If it is in the person’s control, then he or she can decline: “ … said a witness at the scene who declined to be identified.” See?

Another recent change seems to bring the Post’s stylebook in alignment with AP—or at least alongside it—regarding state names. AP has gone to spelling out full state names. As Bill explains, “I’m not as aghast about spelling out state names as a lot of copy editors are, but it does seem like a waste of space. AP’s reasoning is that it has an international audience of readers who may not know what Mo. is. At The Post we’ve gone through a similar change of mind-set when it comes to local communities, which is why Arlington is now ‘Arlington, Va.’ ”

I’d wondered about that! There’s a line between fully informing readers, which a newspaper should do, and babying or talking down to them, which this change does, in my opinion. Any city, town, or large unincorporated area within the local readership zone should not have to be identified in this manner. A neighborhood, of course, would be described by context: “In King Farm, Rockville’s ‘new urban’ planned community ….”

That’s because no one in Prince William County (Virginia) can be expected to know a neighborhood in Montgomery County (Maryland). But it’s basic local literacy to know where Rockville, Ashburn, Bowie, Georgetown, Takoma Park, Arlington, Oxon Hill, and Reston are, at least generally. If you’re new here or otherwise don’t know where something is, you learn by discerning from context, which the story should provide. Likewise, the story should locate all but the very largest cities outside the local area. (The largest are identified this way in AP: “Atlanta: The city in Georgia stands alone in datelines.”)

In yet another change, the Post is now caving to common but confusing usage with “condo.” Rather than refer to apartments and townhouses, Bill says, the newspaper will use “condominium” or even “condo” “where once we reserved the term for discussion of the mode of ownership.” Ugh! It’s perfectly obvious to the eye what’s an apartment and what’s a townhouse. (This not being New York, we almost never have to get into the definition of “rowhouse” or “brownstone.”) Why muddle the completely clear?

On the other hand, it sounds like some housecleaning Bill did was long overdue. The Post stylebook apparently used to tell editors to “use play down instead of downplay” and that “unplanned events ‘occur’ while planned ones ‘take place.’ ” Now that’s esoteric.

Other old rules the new book throws out:

–distinguishing between “people” and “persons”

–distinguishing between a spiral and a helix

–not using “premiere” as a verb or “repeat” as a noun (as a synonym for “rerun”)

–getting worked up about “parameters,” “unless and until,” and “self-confessed”

As Bill said, “These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ.” I differ with the Post on many of its latest changes or lack of changes. I quibble with AP, too—especially about the serial comma—but AP is the most universally useful style guide out there.

Bill is worth reading, though, as always. His latest chat closes this way, and let me agree with his agreement with a contributor: “Winceworthy is a great word.” If you like language, a language chat is worth a visit.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.